The Gag Cartoonist’s Business Plan

PlanGot this in my email the other day:

Hi there,

I am a product design student from Wales, UK and I am working on an assignment where I have to come up with a business plan. I just wanted to know what it takes to set up a business in cartoon illustration, and what it involves, as this is an area I have great interest in. What do you do that sets your business apart from other similar businesses?

I’d be very grateful for any information you could offer.

Thanks very much for your time.

Normally I just ignore stuff like this. I get a fair share of “tell me what all your markets are and how I make money” emails, but the above note seemed nice and it gives me an opportunity to blog about the business side of gag cartooning.

Let’s see… Business plan…

I’ve used the phrase before, but to be honest, cartooning isn’t the kind of business where you get your idea, get a loan, set up shop and hope to make a profit in a year or two.

Here’s some advice on how I’ve done it so far (I say “so far” because it’s a precarious job and I may very well be wearing an orange apron next week while directing you to the key copying guy), and I’m going to keep it more on the financial end of things:

1) Keep your day gig as long as you can

I worked for a screw manufacturer, a metals distributor, and an auto advertising website for a combined total of about six years before making the leap, and even then it was with the caveat that I juggle cartooning with being a stay-at-home dad.

Being a professional cartoonist most realistically means fitting it in, even when it’s your only source of income. I drew cartoons early in the morning before work, on my lunch hour and at night for years. Now I do it while the kids are at school, and on the weekends.

2) Things you should buy

As I said, cartooning isn’t business as usual, but there are some things I found helpful starting out:

  • A decent computer – My first was an Emachine that came with a printer, monitor and scanner for $500. It was a piece of crap, but it worked. Get something you can afford that gets the job done. You can get that tricked out Mac later.
  • Some sort of website – When I started out blogs didn’t exist yet, so I built my first site myself. It was horrible. Now there’s all sort of options from a blog with ComicPress to Tumblr to Rapidweaver. Keep it on the cheap, but make it look professional.
  • Reasonable art supplies – Cheapo printer paper, a pencil and something other than a Sharpie will get you a long, loooong way.
  • The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker – You can get the paperback for about $30. When I was starting out I raided about every library in the state and read every book of cartoons I could find. This is more or less a one stop gag cartoon education.
  • Mountain Dew – You’re gonna be up early and stay up late. Coffee is good too.

3) Things not to buy

Even more important is avoiding unnecessary expenses. Don’t bother with:

  • A drafting table – It’s nice and it makes you feel professional, but no one cares what you drew the cartoon on. I worked at a coffee table in my living room for almost a decade
  • Mailing lists – Don’t waste a grand and upwards for hundreds of markets that couldn’t care less about cartoons. Use the library to find the biggies, read cartoonists’ blogs and websites, and just plain hunt around.
  • Business cards – I had 1000 printed up and used about five. Plus, your style is going to be changing a lot early on. A total and complete waste.
  • NCS membership – You need to be earning at least half of your income off cartoons to even apply, but as much as it’s a great place to meet other cartoonists, it’s largely social, and certainly not neccesary to work as a cartoonist.
  • How-to-cartoon books – It’s not rocket science here folks, and if you can’t draw a little already, you shouldn’t be looking at a career in cartooning. Most are outdated.

4) Watch your money

Anyone will tell you most businesses fail early because of accounting issues. Know how much you are making, spend as little as you can initially, and track it to the penny. Generally artists don’t like the business end of things. Learn to be good at it, or be an instant success and hire an accountant.

5) Stick to it

It’s hard, it’s discouraging, and you’re going to fail almost constantly. But if you love it you’ll keep doing it because, in the end, no cartoonist really does it for the money.